COLLEGE PARK, Md. – It was pointed out to Robert Carter, Jr., that the Terrapins had a 20-point lead when he left the game, No. 2 Maryland on the way to an 80-53 victory Nov. 29 over Cleveland State at Xfinity Center.
Why didn’t the big junior seem happier when he left the proceedings?
“I feel like we could have played a little better,” he said, shaking his head. “Being the captain of this team I just want to see us get better, see us at our best. When you start off a little slow, especially going into the game we’re going into next week, I want to be better.”
Whoa, Robert. Everyone knows the Terrapins have a showcase game Dec. 1 at preseason No. 1 North Carolina, but there was a scrappy Vikings team out of the Horizon League to deal with before the Tar Heels could have your full attention.
It seemed Cleveland State (2-4) didn’t have Maryland’s full attention in the first half Saturday, the Terrapins with just a four-point lead at the break. CSU players were piling up points in the paint and the Vikings were generally pillaging the Maryland defense.
The Terrapins (6-0) didn’t get a handle on that situation until the second half but throughout, Carter was one matchup Cleveland State wasn’t going to win. Carter finished with a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds. He hit 6-of-8 shots from the field, including 2-of-2 behind the arc in 21 minutes.
And while he did most of his damage on the inside, sophomore Jared Nickens provided the long-range firepower. Nickens had a career high 16 points, also hitting 6-of-8, but nailing four 3-pointers in six tries. He pulled Cleveland State out of their zone and then helped shred their man-to-man, the Terrapin offense executing at a high level coming off those two big wins in the Cancun Challenge earlier this week.
“Jared can really shoot it,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. “I think he’s going to make every one. The two he missed were wide open. The good thing is we’re getting him open shots. We’re getting a lot of open shots. It’s nice to have him, he can really stretch the floor for us and it opens up our big guys and opens up the floor for Melo (Trimble) to drive.”
Turgeon didn’t have the figures for the CSU contest, but said in the last two games, Maryland had 29 and 26 open shots, a high level for any team and the kind of unselfishness he was hoping to instill in this squad. Maryland had 22 assists on 29 field goals Saturday, often passing up a good shot for a better shot, and on several occasions, a better shot for a great shot.
“I think we’re not selfish,” said Nickens. “A lot starts with Rasheed (Sulaimon), his unselfishness rubbed off on a lot of us. We’re just finding better ball movement with our offense and just grinding possession to possession and finding good shots.”
And the Terrapins needed to grind and keep scoring. They hit 58 percent (29-50) for the game, the second highest total this season on the heels of shooting 60 percent against Rhode Island in the Cancun Challenge championship.
“We attacked their zone, got them out of their zone,” said Turgeon of Cleveland State. “We haven’t been great against the zone this year. We were much better against the zone tonight. Offensively we did a lot of nice things. Defensively, we didn’t start the game very well, obviously.”
And that slow defensive start – and Turgeon’s and Carter’s displeasure – carried over into the second half. Leading by just nine midway through that frame, Maryland got another big three from Nickens to make it 59-47 at 9:22. Denonte Flannigan got a tough stickback over Damonte Dodd, but Diamond Stone got two free throws and Jake Layman hit a three to make it 64-49, Maryland’s biggest lead to that point.
Stone’s free throws came after he drew the fourth foul on 6-7 Swiss Army Knife Flannigan, who had given the Terps trouble all game. He finished with 20 points on 9-of-17 shooting, inside and out. Stone’s play, finishing with 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting, helped the Terrapins take control inside.
The Terrapins had a 14-6 run to push that nine-point lead, starting with Nickens’ fourth 3-pointer. Carter also scored inside and Nickens got a stickback.
The Maryland lead would reach 21 points with just 2:31 to play on the unlikely scenario of Michal Cekovsky dribbling down after breaking the press and feeding Stone for a layup and a 76-55 margin.
“We just made the right plays and I happened to be the one taking the shots,” said Carter of the offense. “I’m taking better shots and I’m going to keep shooting. I take them in practice and they’ll start falling in games.”
It was defense, though, that allowed Maryland to gain some ground on the scoreboard. The Terrapins had 18 points off turnovers in the second half, and stingier defense seemed to fuel good offense. Over the final seven minutes, Cleveland State never got closer than 15 points.
The Vikings were able to stay close by shooting 52.7 percent (29-55) from the field, including 54 percent in the second half when the Terrapins threw a variety of defenses at them. They did force seven turnovers and turned a halftime deficit on the boards into a 27-22 advantage.
“It was more the ball-screen defense and the rotations that hurt us,” said Turgeon. “Rasheed guarded the ball pretty well and Melo guarded pretty well. (Andre Yates) was a hard guard. He’s pretty fast. Sometimes when you’re playing these teams, their speed is something you have to get used to.”
Maryland used that a three-quarter court trap with Layman at the point and that helped slow Cleveland State, which by not attacking, often got in shot clock trouble difficulty. The Vikings were just 3-of-12 beyond the arc, and Maryland showed some 1-3-1 and some 2-3 zone, Turgeon switching at opportune times and manufacturing some stops.
By 1:24, Turgeon cleared the bench, Trevor Anzmann and Kent Auslander in with Varun Ram, Jaylen Brantley and Cekovsky, who finished with six points on 3-of-5 shooting, and two assists, including a baseline drive and scoop to Stone. Turgeon was particularly pleased to see more (11 minutes) from Brantley.
“I think he has gotten comfortable and that’s really what’s important,” said the coach. “And I think his teammates are getting comfortable with him. I want him to be a little more aggressive….being more aggressive in what he does offensively and defensively and being more confident when he’s out there. We need him.”
Layman finished with just seven points but he took just two shots and hit both of them. Trimble had eight points and six assists in 32 minutes, and Sulaimon had six points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Maryland turned three turnovers into an 8-0 run to start the second half. Sulaimon picked Flannigan’s pocket and got a lay-up. Then he fed Stone for a dunk. Carter got a steal, gave to Sulaimon, who dropped it back so Carter could slam it and get the Xfinity crowd of 17,282 fans going. Maryland led 43-33 at 17:45, and Cleveland State needed a timeout.
It didn’t help, a Maryland three-quarter court press forcing a 10-second backcourt violation. Trimble fed Stone for another dunk at 17:06to make it a 12-point lead. Sulaimon drew a charge out of Maryland’s new-and-improved half court man-to-man, and all in all the Terrapins were playing with an intensity not seen in the first half.
“We just had to pick it up,” said Carter. “We just have to work on picking (the defense) up coming out of the gates, being aggressive on defense. Don’t let the refs get to us. Don’t think about getting fouls. Just go out and play free.”
“We played a lot of different defenses in the second half and we’re going to have to be that team until our man-to-man gets better,” said Turgeon. “Some games we’re locked in, we’re pretty good. When we’re not locked in, we have to change it up.”
Even Cleveland State’s first bucket came after an intense flurry of Maryland offensive rebounds, the Vikings finally busting out to get a layup from Jibri Blount in transition at 16:01 to make it 45-35.
A Carter 3-pointer at 15:12 put Maryland up 50-37, the biggest lead to that point, but Cleveland State was hanging around, back to within 52-43 when Rob Edwards snuck in for a stickback. The Terrapins hit seven of their first 10 shots in the second half but couldn’t pull away.
When Edwards had a dunk on a baseline drive CSU was within 56-47 at 9:22. He finished with 14 points.
The Terrapins held a tenuous 37-33 halftime edge thanks to some Nickens-of-the-time scoring from their angular sophomore swingman. His baseline 3-pointer on a Trimble feed at 3:57 broke a 27-27 tie. Then he hit another one at 2:36 over a CSU zone. When Carter got an offensive rebound and fed him for another triple at 1:54, Maryland led 36-29, the biggest lead of the first half.
Carpenter scored on a driving jumper to slow the Maryland run, and Yates scored over Trimble just as the half ended on the veritable offensive showcase or the dearth of defense, as the case may be. The Terps led but had to shoot 60 percent (14-23) to do it, as Cleveland State shot 51.6 percent (16-31) and outrebounded Maryland 14-13. Nickens had 11 at the break, equaling his season game high, and Carter had 10.
The Terrapins were even more torrid from the field earlier, hitting nine of their first 11 shots but Cleveland State just wouldn’t go away. The Vikings were 12 of their first 21, and outrebounding the Terps (8-5) more than midway through the first half. When Flannigan hit a jumper at 8:30, the Vikings had erased a five-point Maryland lead and led, 24-23.
That five-point lead came at 13:32when a Nickens’ driving jumper made it 17-12, at the end of a 7-2 run, started by a Carter 3-pointer.
The Terrapins hit four of their first five shots but the game was tied 8-8 when Edwards drove in for a lay-up at 15:53. Each of the Vikings’ first four field goals were a driving layup. In fact, Cleveland State had 22 points in the paint at halftime.
“I want us to be more consistent defensively,” said Turgeon. “It’s funny because we protected the rim so well down in Cancun and tonight we couldn’t protect it. That’s the frustrating part. We’ve got all these big guys and we couldn’t protect the rim.”
After the North Carolina clash, Maryland’s next home game is Dec. 4 against Saint Francis (Pa.).